Guardianship reform advocates turn up the heat with town hall, protest

Sept 22, 2017
Palm Beach Circuit Judge Martin Colin announced he would not run for re-election after The Palm Beach Post’s series on guardianship last year. Damon Higgins / The Palm Beach Post

Despite legislative and policy strides, advocates for guardianship reform says little has changed in the courtroom: Incapacitated seniors and their families are still being taken advantage of by lawyers and court-appointed professionals while judges turn a blind eye.

So in an effort to bring further attention to the issue, an advocacy group that brought about some of those changes plans a town hall on Tuesday in West Palm Beach, followed by a protest in St. Petersburg on Thursday.

Sam Sugar, co-founder of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianships, says guardianship reform hasn’t translated into changes in the courtroom. Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

“It’s an attitudinal shift we are looking for in the judges,” said Sam Sugar, co-founder of American Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, who organized all three events. “Somehow these judges shifted position — from implementing laws designed to help vulnerable people and their families to a position of exploiting them instead.”

Sugar’s grassroots group spearheaded new laws in Tallahassee aimed at protecting incapacitated seniors and their assets when they are put into court-ordered guardianships for their own protection. Florida, as around the nation, has seen a number of professional guardians and their lawyers bilk the elderly and their life savings rather than protect them.

The Palm Beach Post series on guardianship spurred extensive changes in the way it works in Palm Beach County. Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

In Palm Beach County, the chief judge last year handed down reforms after The Palm Beach Post reported on conflict of interest, favoritism and complaints concerning former Circuit Judge Martin Colin and his wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt, who works as a professional guardian.

And Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga has a task force looking into the issue.

Still, Sugar hears of abuse by guardians, their bulldog attorneys and the judges who kowtow to them on a nearly daily basis. He says Palm Beach County remains a hot spot for some of the most egregious cases.

“Right now all we see is window dressing to take the heat off. There are no substantive changes except to move around the offending judges like chess pieces,” Sugar said, referring to how a Palm Beach County judge who was a friend of Savitt’s and repeatedly ruled in her favor was moved out of the Probate & Guardianship Division.

The events come after a federal jury awarded $16.4 million against the lawyers of professional guardians to a multi-millionaire ward for breaching their fiduciary duty and running up “unnecessary and excessive fees.” The case emanated out of Colin’s courtroom where the judge lavished praised upon the lawyers, who are appealing the verdict.

On Tuesday in West Palm Beach, Sugar will give a lecture to inform seniors and families about how to protect themselves from unethical guardians and their attorneys, followed by a town hall. On Thursday, he will lead a protest march in St. Petersburg that culminates at a meeting of the Pinellas Guardianship Association.

“We are going to have a very raucous crowd because a lot of victims are coming,” Sugar said of the town hall in West Palm Beach.

“This is directed toward the general public to educate, to talk about the risks families face simply by the virtue of their address in Palm Beach County and how the probate courts operate,” he said.

Then on Thursday in St. Petersburg, the group will march to the Yacht Club where professional guardians are meeting to put pressure on the association to rid itself of what the group believes are bad actors depleting the life savings of incapacitated seniors.

“We want to demand that Pinellas Guardianship Association start protecting people,” he said.

Guardianship town hall

Where: Embassy Suites, 1601 Belvedere Road, West Palm Beach

When: Tuesday 5 p.m. lecture, 6:15 panel

Who: Sam Sugar and panel, including state Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Delray Beach; attorney Greg Coleman, past president of the Florida Bar; and Anthony Palmieri, deputy inspector general and chief guardianship investigator for Palm Beach County's Clerk & Comptroller. The Palm Beach Post’s John Pacenti will also be on the panel to speak about work on The Post’s series, Guardianships: A Broken Trust.